Most Christians associate the word "disciples" with the twelve men Jesus selected [invited] to follow him during his earthly ministry. Too many Christians today associate the word "disciple" only with those Jesus called to be his followers. Jesus did not create the concept of a teacher and his disciples. Nor did this concept begin in Israelite history/culture. The disciple method/concept of education originated centuries before Jesus' birth in non-Jewish cultures.
The objective is to increase students' awareness that the teacher/disciple method of education was a common method for educating people in the ancient world. It was especially a common method for teaching in the areas of philosophy and religion. This approach to education was much older than Jesus.
The concept signified the pupils of a teacher. It existed hundreds of years before Jesus had learners following him. For example, notable Greek philosophers had disciples. Just as we are familiar with school buildings that house teachers and students, the ancient world was familiar with the teacher/disciple method of education.
Seeing a teacher followed by a group of disciples did not astound people in Jesus' lifetime. It was a common means for educating successors even in Jewish society. In Jesus' day, the teacher/disciple relationship was a well known, recognized, old form of teaching.
The American culture is dedicated to educating all its citizens. Education's goal is to equip everyone in our society with the ability to read, write, and function responsibly. For numerous reasons we conclude this is essential in a literate society. We cannot imagine population areas without school buildings and school activities. Perhaps many Americans think all the world's countries and cultures of past centuries educated their populations. This was not true in the ancient world. It is not true now in many areas of today's world.
It is too simple for Americans to assume things commonly occurring in our culture always have occurred in all cultures, both modern and ancient. For example, it is easily assumed that all societies, modern and ancient, were (are) dedicated to educating their entire populations. That simply is not and was not true. In most ancient cultures and in many modern cultures, only the wealthy had the time and means of pursuing an education.
In a world that did not have printing presses, in a world where likely above 90% of the people could not read and write, in a world where most people's priority concern was their struggle to survive, education was a luxury available primarily to the wealthy elite. There were no public schools dedicated to educating the masses, or compulsory education for children and young people. All [including the young] had to work to survive. Survival did not depend on reading, writing, and math skills. For the majority [the peasants], survival depended on producing food.
The common need which "drove" most ancient economies was the need for food. In a world without chilling, freezing, or canning, starvation always was close. For the majority of people, survival's objective was simple: produce enough food to (a) feed your family, (b) use to acquire necessities, and (c) pay your taxes. When people could not do those three things, they did not survive. For most people, food production was the key.
If a person had the time and could afford the financial demands required to be a learner/pupil/disciple, he did not become part of a university community, follow a particular curriculum, and begin a career [as we commonly do today]. He associated himself with a teacher. He became a disciple. He learned from that teacher.
We think of going to a university or training school for career preparation. For us, career preparations involve decisions and choices. In the ancient world, the majority had no choices and only one decision. "Dad worked in food production until he died. I will work in food production until I die. And so shall my sons." For the few who could pursue an education, the route was be a disciple [not go to college] or be an apprentice [not attend a training school].
Having disciples was not unique to Jesus even in his Jewish society. Both John and the Pharisees had disciples (Mark 2:18). Devout Jews considered themselves Moses' disciples (John 9:28). It was not the role Jesus assumed in his teacher/disciple relation that was rejected by the elite of Jewish society (the relgious/political leaders). It was the right Jesus had to be a teacher with disciples. John had the right to serve as a teacher with disciples because a wide segment of Jewish society correctly recognized John to be God's spokesman, God's prophet. His entire life fit the mold of God's prophet. The majority saw the obvious in considering him a prophet (see Luke 1:8-17; 3:1-14; and 20:1-8 with awareness focused on verse 6). The leaders of the Pharisees had the right to be teachers with disciples because they were the elite who were educated in Moses' teachings.
Anyone (a) who had something significant to teach and (b) who could attract disciples could serve/function in the role of a teacher. The fact that Jesus assumed the role of a teacher was not shocking. The fact that he assumed the right to (a) teach people about God's priorities and (b) teach people about God's purposes through the use of Jewish scripture shocked trained Jewish teachers. Jesus' right to teach was not based on his role as an Israelite prophet or on the role of a trained Rabbi. At issue was Jesus' right to declare (a) God's priorities and (b) the intent of God's Law. The issue was not Jesus' right to function as someone who taught.
What about Jesus? He did not fit the mold of an Israelite prophet. He was criticized because he did not meet common expectations associated with prophets or rabbis (see Matthew 9:10; 9:14; 11:19; 12:2). Jesus claimed no priestly lineage. Jesus was not appropriately educated to be a recognized Jewish rabbi (teacher of the law). What right did Jesus have to establish teacher/disiciple relationships? Was he motivated by religious/political ambitions?
See the previous comment. In the elite's attack on Jesus as a spokesman for God, they often assumed that their motivations and Jesus' motivations were the identical.
Perhaps the most powerful commentary on Jesus' right to the role of a teacher with disciples was made by one of the elite. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin was the most powerful politcal/religious institution/body in first century Israel [in Jesus' lifetime]. Nicodemus belonged to that elite, prestigious, powerful group. Consider John 3:1,2. He recognized Jesus as a teacher sent by God [astounding!]. He called Jesus Rabbi [astounding!]. He said the obvious verification that God sent Jesus as a teacher were the attesting miracles Jesus performed. To Nicodemus, this was the obvious conclusion: ". . . No one can do these signs you do unless God is with him." That incredible declaration came from a person in the Jerusalem Sanhedrin!
Nicodemus' comments are significant insights from a person (a) who had status in Israel and (b) who approached Judaism from completely different perspectives.
What was Jesus' objective? Did he aspire to political power? Not in the way common to the thinking of his world. Did he aspire to significant religious prestige? Not in the way common to the thinking of his day. Did he have material aspirations? No. Did he have wealth aspirations? No. If his objectives were not driven [in a physical sense] by political, religious, material (pleasure/comfort centered), or wealth considerations, what was his objective?
Likely the leadership in Israel found Jesus' motivations bewildering and frustrating. As is still true, an important part of "my" being right is related to "my" motives being the correct motives.
Read the text (Matthew 28:16-20) carefully. The resurrected Jesus gave these instructions to the eleven living disciples he invited to follow him. These instructions were given to the eleven at a designated meeting site in Galilee (see Matthew 26:32; 28:7,10). Some disciples were doubtful. Acts 1:6-10 indicates elements of confusion continued in their thinking even when Jesus ascended. In Acts 2 the confusion ceased after the Holy Spirit came upon them.
Note Jesus' promises to meet his disciples in Galilee after he was killed in Jerusalem.
Give careful attention to Jesus' commission to the eleven. (1) Jesus declared he had the authority to give this commission. Previously [prior to his resurrection] he directed them to teach only Israelites (see Matthew 10:2-6). Now [after his resurrection], he directed them to teach all people. (2) The objective of their commission: make disciples of anyone anywhere. (3) Those who wished to be Jesus' disciples should be baptized and live by Jesus' teachings.
Note two things about the commission. (1) He intended all people to be touched by his life, death, and resurrection. (2) He wanted disciples. Baptism and living by his teachings were the responses of people who wanted to be Jesus' disciples.
Too often Christians are diverted from Jesus' emphasis. We too readily emphasize what we feel needs emphasis. For example, our concerns can be so focused on baptism that we forget about developing a faith in Jesus which produces the desire to be a disciple. The call to follow Jesus involves more than the responsibility to be baptized. Believers are baptized because they want to be Jesus' disciple. Too many are baptized with no desire to be a disciple. The willingness to submit to baptism is insufficient to fulfill the resurrected Jesus' primary objective in human life. That objective can be nothing less than a desire to be Jesus' disciple.
Too often the evangelistic teaching of Christians is designed for people who believe Jesus is the Christ. Too infrequently is the evangelistic teaching of Christians designed for people who do not believe in Jesus. When evangelistic teaching is primarily designed for those who accept as fact that Jesus was God's Christ, Christians too easily change the focus. In conversion, we often stress baptism over a desire for or commitment to discipleship. Baptism has significance to those who wish to be disciples.
As this study begins, keep in your awareness two understandings. Understanding one: the word "disciples" in the gospels [when denoting Jesus' followers] at times referred to more than the twelve men Jesus selected [of whom eleven became apostles]. Read Luke 6:12-16 and 10:1. Understanding two: the objective of the eleven [later again the twelve; Acts 1:15-26] was to call people to be Jesus' disciples. Jesus' commission to the eleven at Matthew's closing was to call people to be Jesus' disciples. It was not to call people to be the apostles' disciples. Peter [one of the eleven] declared this understanding to Cornelius in Acts 10:25, 26. Peter came to inform Cornelius about Jesus, not about himself.
Those who were Jesus' disciples exceeded the twelve [eleven of whom became apostles]. Discipleship called people to follow Jesus.
Discussion question: Since Israel was a religious nation/people who followed the living God, why did Jesus need to make disciples?
Israel correctly understood the identity of the living God. Israel knew Him for centuries prior to Jesus birth. Yet, Israel misunderstood God's priorities and purposes. Jesus sought disciples among Israelites to refocus their understanding of God's nature and to make Israel aware of God's intents and purposes. As the Messiah God promised Israel, Jesus was an accurate, trustworthy reflection of God.
Link to Student Guide Lesson 1
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